STATE OF THE NATION: OUR IN-DEPTH INVESTIGATION INTO THE CRISIS GRIPPING WELSH RUGBY
IT’S dog eat dog... everyone is doing their best to make sure they’re not next in line to fold.”
Those are the words of David Evans, chairman of Lampeter RFC in Division 3 West B. They sum up the feelings of many involved in a grassroots game that is in crisis.
Over the past two weeks, a WalesOnline investigation has attempted to get to the bottom of the issues facing those who are at the heart of the community game in Wales. During hours of interviews with key figures at various different levels, a bleak picture has been painted.
At its heart is a crippling player drain that shows no sign of letting up. Every chairman we spoke to below Division One admitted they were concerned.
Clubs are experiencing an alarming amount of players walking away from the game after youth rugby, leaving them short on numbers to fulfil their fixtures. For many, their very existence could well become an issue sooner rather than later.
One such example is Llanharan RFC, a Division 2 East Central side who were thriving years ago, running three senior teams. These days the struggle to field a first team is their main concern.
“Off the field we’re not doing too bad, but on the field we are struggling just to get 20 players out for the firsts,” said chairman Wayne Merry.
Barry RFC in Division 2 East Central saw 28 players grow out of their under-16s team last season – this year they can’t field a youth team.
It’s a similar story at Pontyclun RFC, a league below: “These players are not going to other clubs, they’re falling out of the game,” said chairman John Gilbert.
This wasn’t the case 20 years ago, so what’s changed? A DIFFERENT WORLD... Clubs are finding there is so much more for people to do these days, with the emergence of other sports and a modern society that offers so many options for people to fill their time.
There is also a school of thought that it’s natural for players who have been involved in the game at youth level to lose interest at the point when their senior rugby involvement should be beginning. If a child starts at the age of seven, they’ll have been playing rugby for around 13 years by the time they reach senior rugby.
Life is different for young people in the communities where the local rugby team used to be their heartbeat. When players head off to university or travelling around the world, for example, few return home to bolster the stocks of the senior team. Weekend work commitments also have to come before rugby for many.
The Welsh Rugby Union accept it needs addressing and have introduced under-17s teams to tackle the drop-off at youth level – and insist they are seeing positive results.
But it’s clear that clubs’ production lines are now breaking and players are walking away from the game. TOO MANY CLUBS? This issue was barely touched upon in the WRU’s annual report which perhaps adds to a feeling that the extent of the issue is being overlooked.
“The WRU don’t seem to realise it or are ignoring it,” said Bill Pritchard, who retired as chairman of Aberdare RFC last month. “Somebody needs to look at it properly.
“The hard question – and I’ve spoken to Gareth Davies (WRU chairman) about this – is do we have enough players playing regular rugby (not simply registered) to meet the needs of the number of rugby clubs we have? I don’t think we do.”
What Mr Pritchard alludes to is the difference between a player who is simply registered with a club and a player that is active.
Aberdare had 51 registered players last season, but were unable to regularly field a second team. It means that participation figures can be misleading.
The number of players is diminishing, but the number of clubs is not, which has created the ‘dogeat-dog’ environment that Lampeter boss Evans referred to.
Clubs further down the leagues are having their better players poached and there is talk of money sometimes being involved, which is where things get even more complicated. CASHING IN In order to be eligible to receive funding from the WRU, each club has to sign a statement of truth that says they do not pay players. But there are claims that teams simply sign it and proceed to pay players anyway, or simply decline to sign it.
Payment of players has long been an open secret in amateur Welsh rugby. Now, in a world where the number of potential players is less, it’s a major issue for some.
“We’ve got a very successful junior section and, after the effort and cost of running 14 or 15 teams, it’s disappointing when they leave youth and are tempted by cash offers to join other clubs,” said Lampeter’s Evans.
“If they want to go to a club that plays a higher standard, then we will facilitate that move for them.
“But we lose players to clubs in the third division and players tell us it’s because they’ve been offered money. I don’t know how they afford it.”
Bynea RFC in Division 3 West B were unable to fulfil a fixture this season after seeing their coach and upwards of 12 players moved to another club.
The problem is intensified in areas of the country that are heavily saturated with rugby clubs.
Chairmen not in a position or willing to pay are looking at ways to ensure they keep hold of their players and even attract new ones.
But when you have a number of clubs in close proximity, things are tough.
“I’m not in a position to pay players and I’ll never do that,” said Pontyclun’s Gilbert.
“For me, it’s about improving the facilities that we have. If I can find players the best resources to play rugby, then I feel it’ll stop (numbers dropping).
“But the trouble is, that’ll be to the detriment of other clubs because we have seven clubs within five miles.” Penarth RFC can relate. “We’re all fighting for the same players. It’s quite difficult keeping hold of players,” said chairman Mike Gooding. UNFULFILLED FIXTURES The dogfight for players amid a dwindling player base is resulting in one thing down the league – unfulfilled fixtures.
The WRU revealed in their annual report that an impressive 98% of fixtures in the Welsh national leagues were fulfilled last season, meaning just 64 games fell by the wayside.
However, just over a month into the 2018/19 season and there are already 45 league matches that have not taken place – though the WRU insist they will have to at some point – and it’s worse in the knockout competitions.
In the first two rounds of the WRU National Bowl competition, 33 out of 124 games have been forfeited.
There is better news off the field, though. BETTER NEWS ON THE FINANCES FOR SOME Whilst clubs across the board might be struggling to get teams out on the pitch every week, their financial performances are, perhaps surprisingly, a little more reassuring.
Many have realised that to put themselves on a more solid footing, they need to diversify and look at how they can generate revenue outside of rugby.
Those with halls are making use of them for weddings, birthdays and other functions so that they can maximise the money taken over the bar, one of the clubs’ biggest money- spinners. The other is WRU funding.
All WRU member clubs receive a base grant of £4,000 per season and then on top of that are financially rewarded based on things like the number of senior teams, mini and junior teams, women’s teams they field, how many qualified first-aiders and qualified coaches they have and so on.
Each team has to fill out an audit detailing such information and then a points-based system determines how much extra money they receive.
Many are content with the funding system but, in some cases, it’s still not enough. REAL WORRIES IN RURAL AREAS Builth Wells chairman and former Wales prop Jeremy Pugh painted a bleak picture for clubs in rural areas, calling for a change to the funding model.
“If we put in for a grant to do stuff at the club it’s great,” he said. “But our travel costs are around £20,000 and, though I don’t know the exact amount, we get around £13,000 back and they call it development money.
“We’ve never had development money, it all goes into keeping the boys on the road.
“I do think the Union are trying off the field, but they’re not supporting the rural areas at all.
“Covering travel costs is a massive concern and, having spoken to West Wales clubs, I know they have the same. It’s huge.
“Even I could sit down at a computer, work out the mileage and then work out a sensible rate.
“They say they’re putting all this money in but are they really putting it in where it will make a difference? I don’t think they are.”
He added: “In a business, you have to make decisions. Unfortunately, with the Welsh Rugby Union, they don’t like making decisions in my opinion because with that comes accountability.
“If they’re not prepared to make decisions, they shouldn’t be in post.
“I do fear for rugby in Mid Wales if things don’t alter.”
Illustrating the precarious reality for many clubs in Wales, Pugh went on to explain that without sponsors ‘we wouldn’t exist and we’re so grateful’.
Machynlleth RFC are experiencing similar travel expense.
Chairman Rhys Morris has worked out they’ll have to travel around 1,700 miles to play their away games this season and admits it’s the club’s biggest expense on the playing side.
But there are also unique issues facing clubs in rural areas when it comes to participation.
“In our area, we have small schools and there aren’t enough kids for us to run a full junior section and we encourage them to go to other clubs and play but then we just can’t get them back,” explained Morris.
“We’ve struggled in the last few years and had to postpone games. It’s improving this season, but it’s a struggle every week.
He added: “The hub officer stuff is good – they work with the primary and secondary school to encourage kids to play – but it seems to be that they’re very much tied into individual clubs instead of encouraging it across all the clubs in the area.
“But working with the kids in school, that’s the only way to do it.”
Morris went on to suggest a system that identifies players who are unable to get a game at a particular club because there are too many numbers would be beneficial.
It would mean those clubs struggling could be bolstered and that would stop players walking away from the game. The permit system is straightforward but currently relies heavily on personal relationships.
NOT EVERYTHING IS SO BAD Further up the leagues in Division One, where there is an ‘abundance of players’ as one chairman said, the outlook is a little more uplifting.
Rhiwbina RFC boast a thriving mini and junior section, with their seconds playing the WRU second team conference, but even they have seen a drop-off at first-team level this season.
“At the end of the day, we’re in North Cardiff where there are lots of families that want their kids to participate in sport,” said a spokesperson for the club.
“We’ve got a good reputation, we’re very well organised in terms of safeguarding, qualifications for coaches and it’s a secure environment.
“We’ve had a lot of dropouts in the first team this year and we’ve brought in guys from the seconds and it works.
“We are still concerned with the game at grassroots level. At the moment we might be bucking the trend but we appreciate that things could change.
“We’re concerned about our friends and our neighbouring clubs. It’s upsetting to see clubs folding or unable to field a team.”
Forgeside RFC, re-instated into the league structure this year, came close to becoming one of those clubs.
Last season, they dropped out of Division 3 East D because they could no longer field a team consistently amid defeats of more than 100 points but, with the support of the WRU, are now back in the game.
“We didn’t want to drop out of the league and then disappear so we spoke to the WRU and asked what happens if we do drop out of the league,” said chairman Geraint Reynolds.
“They said they’d support us and let us play friendlies as much as we could but obviously there is a shortage of referees.
“But they said as long as we played upwards of 14 games in the season, we could go in front of the committee and put in to come back into the leagues this season.
“In the end, we played around 17 or 18 games in the year, but there was no pressure on the boys or the club. We went back to just having fun on a Saturday afternoon.”
Forgeside took advantage of the WRU’s ‘Game On’ initiative that is usually utilised at second-team level and it means referees are insured to take charge of games that might be less than 15-a-side or uncontested scrums – among other things – with the sole focus of making sure the game goes ahead.
It’s an initiative that has shown positive signs at second team level since it’s inception however, Forgeside are now back in the league structure, where the ‘Game On’ initiative isn’t an option, and things are looking up.
“On the field, I’m quietly confident that we’ll be OK,” said Reynolds.
“Two weekends ago we played a game and the average age of the pack was 22. So it’s a young set of boys but they’re all having fun together.
“They’re all local and as long as we can keep everyone happy, together and nobody else comes looking then we’ll be okay.
Holyhead RFC in North Wales have turned themselves around too. Last year they were docked points for be unable to field a side on occasions but are now fielding a senior, women’s and youth team.
“Three years ago, some of the lads didn’t think we were going to carry on,” said Holyhead chairman Emyr Williams, “but the enthusiasm has come on leaps and bounds.
“The enthusiasm of the women is infectious. There are 20 to 30 of them training and it catches on.
“I’ve found in recent years that the interest of some players doesn’t last very long, but we are confident at this moment in time, with the interest there, that we will carry on.” SO HOW CONCERNING IS IT
REALLY? The WRU will address some of the matters raised when they meet the clubs at their AGM in Hensol today.
But, for the most part, there isn’t a great deal of anger directed at the Union.
Most agreed that support was available should they need it, some have received grants to fix broken roofs and make improvements to their clubs.
“We always get support from the WRU, they’re there to help but there’s a limit to what they can do,” explained Barry RFC chairman Colin Ham.
Ham’s assessment is fair, but the reality for some clubs is desperation.
In their 125th year, Tredegar RFC are facing the very real prospect of extinction. They are being prevented from playing after refusing to pay a historical debt of £40,000 to the WRU.
As such, their players are leaving to go elsewhere and they are yet to take the field five games into the season.
When asked if he was comfortable his club’s future was secure, Andrew Murphy of Bridgend Sports RFC replied: “Simple answer – no. We don’t own our own clubhouse.
“For the past three seasons we have been based in Bridgend Rugby Club, where we have use of a room, but this is just a filling agreement that could be terminated at any time.
“Trying to find a location that will take a club with two senior teams, one youth side and 10 mini and junior sides is difficult.”
Murphy’s concerns about the future of the game are shared elsewhere.
“I’m very worried to be honest,” said Pontyclun RFC’s John Gilbert.
“At the AGM two years ago, I said the player drain was too heavy. A lot of clubs in the local area are struggling and some are in freefall.”
With ex-Aberdare chairman Pritchard adding: “In my opinion, the community game is slowly dying.”
The struggles that the grassroots game faces were not mentioned in any great detail in the WRU’s annual report last year, but a line from chief executive Martyn Phillips insisted: “We are confident we will see participation numbers grow.”
Though the evidence begs the question: Is the grassroots game thriving or simply surviving?
You fear it’s the latter... but for how long?
Spectators get ready to watch yesterday’s Division Three East Central A match between Penarth and Pontyclun, won 32-21 by the visitors
Penarth players applaud off the Pontyclun team who won yesterday’s game at the Penarth Athletic Ground PICTURES: Peter Bolter